If you’ve ever had an all-consuming, obsessive feeling while reading a great novel, you probably didn’t ask yourself why. You just had that experience where you kept thinking, “just one more chapter,” until one became two, two became three, three became four, and next thing you knew the sun was rising, and you were still reading!
Well, it turns out there may be a biochemical reason for why this happens. An article published on the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine website describes a study which revealed that when we are enthralled by a story told on video, our brain releases heightened amounts of oxytocin.
Oxytocin is an endogenously produced hormone that promotes feelings of empathy and trust. It emerges when we feel intimacy. For example, physical touch, such as cuddling, kissing, or hugging, sends oxytocin surging through our neural pathways, soothing and electrifying us, signaling us to care for the person we are with and to trust the environment we are in.
While the study did not measure changes in oxytocin levels for those reading a story, I am going to hypothesize that should such a study be performed, we would see a similar oxytocin spike.
When we are captivated by a great written story, we experience the same effects as reported in the study’s video watchers: we pay attention, we root for our favorite characters, and we care about the outcome.
Heck, I believe it’s possible that reading a great novel would cause an even stronger oxytocin response than watching a film.
I mean, do you know anyone who has ever decided to go “curl up with a good movie”?
Think About It: Where Do You Read?
Most every time I speak, I ask the audience where they read the most books. Every time, the #1 answer to that question is in bed. Makes sense. We tend to keep stacks of books on our bedside table to pick up and read right before sleep or throughout the night to help us back to sleep.
Bed is arguably the most intimate place in our home. It’s where we have the greatest need to feel safe, because bed is where we are the most vulnerable. The oxytocin release we may experience reading a good book would feed that sense of safety, making us feel happy and at home.
A lot of people read in public, too. On the subway, for example. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t call the subway the most relaxing environment in the world. However, pull out a book, and you carve out a safe space all your own.
Non-fiction Authors Can Create Intimacy with Readers Too
As a non-fiction author, you also have an extraordinary opportunity to create intimacy with your reader. If you want to enroll your reader in your ideas; if you want your reader to feel a bond, to be sold on YOU; you must let them know that you see and understand them. And that you empathize.
Here are 4 tips to help you bond with your reader.
Tip #1: Before you write, know who your ideal reader IS.
I make all my clients do an exercise where they go deep into the heart and mind of their ideal reader to get a clear understanding of what they want, why they want it, why they think that they don’t have it, and the impact of that gap. This is radically different from the more common, and less effective, approach of building a reader avatar.
Avatars are based on demographics and the reader’s situation. You won’t find the path to intimacy in how much money your reader makes, how old they are, or what part of the world they live in.
It’s about their emotional life. It’s about what matters to them; what their values are; what’s keeping them up at night. When you write to those, your message will reach across all demographics, and your reader’s brain just might start pumping oxytocin in buckets!
Tip #2: Communicate empathy without making assumptions.
Say, “I understand the situation you’re likely in and how you might feel about it.” Notice I didn’t say tell them that you know what they’re going through. To write, “I know you must be….” reads as presumptive, and this will likely trigger the opposite of a sense of safety: defensiveness.
If you guessed right, you might be okay.
You’ll convert your reader from disciple to rebel, as they bristle at your assumptions with an internal, “You don’t know me!”
Book closed. Buh-bye!
Tip #3: Never refer to your reader with a plural anything.
Reading is a solo act. The intimacy you can create with a reader lying in bed perusing your book depends upon your creating the experience of a one-on-one intimate conversation with a trusted expert who cares deeply about them personally. Don’t make them feel like one face in a crowd of thousands attending a giant lecture.
Tip #4: Lead your reader like a great tour guide.
Be clear about where you’re taking them and why. Use clear language, communicate your ideas in a logical flow, tell them where you’re going next and why you’re taking them there. If you do, they’ll hop on the bus, settle into a cushy velour seat, and stare out the giant window oohing and ahh-ing the entire way.
If you don’t, it’s the biochemical equivalent of pulling up to the curb in an unmarked white van, sliding the door open, and shouting at your reader, “Get in! Get in!”
“Ahh…no thanks! I’ll wait for the tour bus.”
The Bottom Line Is This:
As an author, you have a one-of-a-kind opportunity to spend 6 or more hours in bed with the undivided attention of your ideal reader (and potentially ideal client). Pepsi can spend 31 million on Super Bowl ads, but they can’t get that level of access. Use it wisely.